Tag Archives: the vatican

Caesar’s Notes: Tuesday, June 1 – “You are 2000 years old. I am 20.”

6 Jun

Belated and abbreviated post for Tuesday – since I have more time this afternoon, I’m going to try and include a few of these in rapid succession to finish recording the week!

On Tuesday, Ashley and I woke up and decided to go for a run. To the Colosseum.

Living in Trastevere, this is not nearly as epic as it sounds. We lace up our sneakers, change into running clothes (our professor would hate this — we were told not to wear shorts or white sneakers in the city to avoid pegging ourselves as tourists!), cross Ponte Garibaldi, run through a few streets, sprint across the Circus Maximus (which isn’t a big deal in itself, or anything), and look around until we spot a big hulking ruin on the horizon. Excusing the fact that Rome is filled with big hulking ruins, we spot this one pretty quickly – and bam. All of those hours of History Channel watching are condensed into one building right in front of me.

We don’t have a camera, so instead of pausing for pictures, we jog closer. And closer. And closer, until I can reach out my hand and touch the wall. “You are 2000 years old.” I say to it (I’m starting to get into this weird habit of talking to ancient structures.) “I’m 20. Excuse my language, but holy shit.”

Dodging tourists, we run the entire perimeter of the Colosseum, silent the whole time. I am a bit out of shape, the Euros tucked into my sock are itching me, and I am getting an awful sunburn on my right shoulder, but I can’t pay attention to any of that. I am too busy seeing the Colosseum on my morning run.

An hour and a stop-start shower later (to conserve hot water, we all have to wash our hair, stop the water, soap up, start the water, stop the water, shave, start the water…rinse and repeat as necessary), I am on the #3 tram on my way to the Capitoline Hill, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. These sites are our class for the day. I am in dork urban history heaven.

And that’s before I meet Jan Gadeyne, our guide for the day (and for one of our classes next week, too.) His reputation far precedes him – so much so that we heard about him for nearly a half hour from last year’s students during a pre-departure mingle in New Haven. Why, you might ask? Because he’s a beast. First of all, he was featured in the History Channel’s “Rome: Engineering an Empire” and PBS’s “Did Rome Really Fall?” Second of all, he has not one but TWO Facebook fan pages and a YouTube impersonator. And third of all, he walks SO. ABSURDLY. FAST.

Jan sketching out the four quadrants of the hill. At one point he turned and snapped at us: "Do not sit down! This is not an ElderHostel tour!"

So I came prepared, having stretched from my run and tapped into my Yale tour guide/New Hampshire cul-de-sac walker mentality. If you are unfamiliar, both the Palatine and the Capitoline Hills are famous in the history of Rome because they are two of the Seven Hills of Rome that surround and cut through the city. The Palatine Hill in particular is the site of the homes of Rome’s most ancient settlers, including (legend has it) the hut of Romulus, one of the twin brothers who founded the city (remember that story? suckled by wolves, Romulus kills Remus? ahh, now you’re with me). Archaeologists have found traces here of civilization going all the way back to the 9th century B.C. Because of its legendary importance, many emperors built their palaces here (Augustus literally built his to encompass the traces of Romulus’s hut), and we get our word “palace” from the name “Palatine.”

Me on the Palatine. It's not so bad to be "over the hill" when you're around buildings that are several millennia older!

Taken together, Jan Gadeyne’s guidance and my epic surroundings meant that I saw a lot of superbly-explained, stunningly-old sites over the course of three hours and was out of breath the entire time. Though I am proud to say that I KEPT UP, even when the entire rest of the group got lost behind us. Jan gave me a grudging, “You’re a little better than the rest of them…but I’m still not impressed,” at the end of the tour. We’ll see how I do next time we meet.

Ruins from the Palace of Domitian. At its (literal) height, the palace had walls that were 100 ft. high.

The best part of the outing (besides the scenery and Jan’s continuous griping about the flowers that had been planted on the hill “to please the tourists”) was the Roman Forum. The forum first became a proper Forum in around 625 B.C., so it beats even the Colosseum by a long shot. Heck, even Cicero had his digs here for a while. Among the ruins: the Temple of Julius Caesar (and the site where much of “Julius Caesar,” the Shakespeare play which we had to read during our spring term semester, takes place!); a few bricks left over from the Imperial Rostra, a platform from which ordinary citizens could get up and make speeches to the crowd; a handful of temples, each with a few marble pillars or ceiling blocks remaining; and my favorite, the Curia Senatus, or the former senate house which has been carefully reconstructed around its foundations to the point where I stood still, closed my eyes, and just imagined all of the debates that had raged there and famous orators who had spoken. Throughout the day, I felt as though I could hear the ruins echo.

Sections of the Forum; also, HELLO, pillars.

Talk about a walk back in time...

We made our way back to our apartment after class and did a little shopping for dinner, including a short stop into this delicious cheese, bread, and wine shop whose owners speak absolutely no English. We communicated with sign language and baby Italian.

Don't worry, I won't insert another cheesy pun here...oops.

Before cooking dinner (spaghetti with a sauce of meat, zucchinis, eggplant, etc; salad; bruschetta; wine and cheese), Jonah (one of the guys in the program) and I made one more field trip. We went to John Cabot University, a nearby English-language college, and we attended a poetry workshop by Mark Strand, former Poet Laureate of the United States and current Writer in Residence at John Cabot. Sitting in the audience with my notebook open, I couldn’t believe that I was hearing this American poet read poems translated into Italian while sitting in Italy. A cross cultural triumph.

When dinner ended, the girls and guys split up again, and while the guys were off exploring the local pub scene, we went for our first night walk around Rome.

Setting off on our night walk.

Rome is an AMAZING city at night. Everything is walkable, populated, safe, noisy, and full of couples making out (and I mean seriously making out, leaving no room for the Holy Ghost) until at least 3am, often later. We didn’t have a destination in mind at first, but we ended up at the Pantheon. Kind of like how we had “ended up” at the Vatican and the Colosseum. What can I say? Rome is a good place to wander.

My, Pantheon, what big columns you have!

The whole city changes in vibrancy after sunset, and while not everything is enhanced, many of the statues and buildings have an ethereal glow (okay, okay, or just an added glow from strategically-placed tea lights) when set against the night sky.

Just another bridge statue looking epic.

The buildings rise out of the darkness, and I am left feeling awfully small, and completely awed.

After almost two hours of walking, we make our way to the Vatican to see St. Peter’s after hours. The crowds are gone, no cars are whizzing down the street in front of us; in fact, were it not for our footsteps, it would be just the cathedral and our breath. And my thoughts quiet down, and I stop in the center of the street, and I think there is a whole world waiting for me in this silence.


Caesar’s Notes: Monday, May 31 – “Well, hello there, St. Peter’s.”

5 Jun

Again, a belated and abbreviated post for Monday, May 31, our first full day in Rome.

When it comes to Trastevere, that old expression of “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,” rings pretty true. Down every street, there are small shops with fresh fruit, just-baked bread, wheels of cheese, and more kinds of pizza than I have ever seen. And that doesn’t even include places to get wine! In large part because of this bounty and accessibility, being in Italy for just a week has already completely changed my outlook on food (more on that in a future post…lots more on that in a future post.)

We are introduced to all of these new shopping options in a special tour given by Emanuela, a woman from our building who has lived in Rome for years and years. She is an Italian teacher and an expert at fresh produce; she is also seriously quirky. We begin our day by meeting her in the piazza and marching through the streets. She shows us the supermarket (yum, yum, yummm — and, believe it or not, CHEAP! Our last three dinners, all home-cooked, have cost us seven Euros total each, and that includes wine.), the best places to get our cheese and meat and fish and bread, the local market that happens just a few minutes away from our apartment and sells fresh fruits and vegetables from farmers every day from 9am-2pm, and my personal favorite, the fresh springs of water all around the city. She even squats down to drink the water in front of us to prove how safe and delicious it is. And as a New Hampshire native and water aficionado, I have to say, she is completely right. Since then, I have not bought a single water bottle here in Rome.

Emanuela manages to introduce us to fountains without putting a "damp"er on our first day in Rome. (The groans for cheesiness should come naturally by now)

It doesn't take me long to follow suit. The Romans know their water.

When we visit the outdoor market, the produce is so bright and fresh that we all, without thinking or consulting one another, buy something different and immediately stick it into our mouths. I buy strawberries from a renowned growing region in Italy (or so says Emanuela), and they are so rich that, raw, they taste just as sweet as when our strawberries at home are pressed into syrup. I try raw cherries for the first time, deep purple grapes the size of golf balls, oranges, apples, and grape tomatoes that I savor on my tongue for a few seconds each bite. We are all stuffing ourselves full of this freshness like it will never happen again when we realize that it will happen again, every day. At least for the next five weeks. And that’s when I realize that we are going to be doing a lot of cooking.

We finish our tour, have some lunch (fresh bread from the baker, toppings from the grocery store, the remainder of the strawberries, a bite of fruity yoghurt), and realize that we have a few hours free before our next meeting. We could take a nap to combat our jet lag. We could Skype friends at home, or go for another stroll around the neighborhood.

Or, we could walk to the Vatican. So of course we opt for…the nap.


The Vatican is about a 20 to 25-minute walk from our apartment. To get there, it’s a fairly straight shot up the bank of the Tiber River and then a diagonal to the left at the very end. Luckily, despite the Vatican being its own country, we don’t have to do anything special when we crossed the border. Except perhaps gape.

We gape because we turn a corner, chatting to each other and thinking about how much we still needed to break in our new sandals, and all of a sudden, there it is: St. Peter’s Basilica. No fanfare, no lightning, not even a face in the clouds like something out of Monty Python. Just one of the most famous buildings in the world.

We all stagger to the nearest sidewalk and burst out laughing. It isn’t even funny, just too much for our minds to process. Suddenly something we have heard about, read about, watched awkward non-accented news reporters talk about, is right there in front of us, and it is like we hadn’t even had to try to summon it. It just appeared, majestic and wide, and one of us looks at the rest of the group and says, “Well, hello there, St. Peter’s. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Here’s a video I took of the outside of the building and of the piazza at the Vatican. Feel free to say hi, too.

"My name is Jessica. I hope you don't think it's creepy if I already know your name? Maybe we can be friends on Facebook!"

Because we have to take an official tour of the Vatican for class next week, we don’t try to go inside. We just walk, talk, and observe the keen fashion sense of the Vatican guards (hint: sexiness is a bit less important than ceremony. Or a LOT less important.)

Poofy streamer pants! They're all the rage here at the Vatican!!

Then we take the bus (ushered by Professor Fry, one of our two professors for the summer) to what will be our classroom from now until the program ends on July 3rd. After a brief orientation (I now know eight different ways to hold my purse to hinder pickpockets, as well as the precise Italian derogatory terms for anyone who dares to wear flip-flops within city walls – these teachers are thorough), we turn around and go back to the banks of the Tiber for a special modern art/musical performance combo with an orchestra playing right beside the river. The scene is free for mingling, so I end up spending most of my time having a long conversation with one of the professors about local urban renewal groups. I had done a bit of research before arriving about anti-graffiti activism (graffiti is worth a whole ‘nother post in itself), but I also learn about attempts to reinvigorate the river as a social hub. Plus, since Pauline (the first name of Professor Fry – we interchange the two based on whether we are inside or outside of an official classroom) is an expert on literature and Rome and quickly learns how much I love poetry, I also leave with a page full of writers to check out.

Then (and if you are getting tired just reading this, you are beginning to understand how long and jam-packed our days are here), we go home to our apartment (all of the guys come over to ours, too — this will be our main gathering spot for the summer, as we have the largest dining area and the most comfy couches, not to mention the best cooks) and make dinner. Two of the guys take charge on this one, believe it or not, and make a DELICIOUS spread of (brace yourself): cheese, bread, wine, salad, al dente pasta with fresh-cooked tomato sauce and another pot of pasta tossed with fresh basil, pecorino cheese, and olive oil, and eggplants sauteed with onion, garlic, wine, and olive oil. For less than five Euros a person, might I add. And with that, our first full day in Italy ends with us stuffed with good food, rosy with good wine, wallet-heavy, hearts-light. Just the way it ought to be.